MY FAVORITE EPIC, AKIRA KUROSAWA'S "KAGEMUSHA, THE SHADOW WARRIOR"
by Charles Carreon
Kagemusha, The Shadow Warrior, like much of Kurosawa Akira's work, is a film about feudal Japan. In this, his most recent work, the action centers around a political ruse in which the warlord Shingen, head of the Takeda clan, is impersonated for three years after his death in order to stave off attacks which might befall a leaderless state. The man who impersonates him is a nameless thief, whose physical resemblance to Shingen is his only qualification for the job, aside from his basic ingenuousness.
Kagemusha is a study in contrasts. It is a story about a very small, very simple man who is forced to assume the character of an immensely powerful warlord. The film explores the many contradictions and paradoxes which arise from such a situation, and, in the course of the story, gives us a deeper look at the meaning of leadership and power, and its relation to loyalty and faith. For the thief, unwilling at first to go along with the plan, ultimately gives all of himself out of loyalty to the deceased lord.
In the opening scene of
the film we see three men sitting in an austerely elegant Japanese room
finished in dark wood. Lord Shingen is sitting in the center; above him is
the plain floral emblem of the Takeda clan. On his right sits his brother
the adviser, on his left the thief. All three men are dressed in identical
robes of grey silk. They are all slightly bald, and their black beards,
streaked with grey, are all trimmed in the same distinguished style. The
two nobles, Shingen and his brother, appear dignified and somewhat tired;
the thief is the picture of dejection, appearing utterly disconsolate but
for the resentment which tightens his body like a tensed spring. When
Shingen makes a remark about the unsuitability of allowing a thief to
impersonate his noble self, the little man explodes in fury. Wildly
gesticulating, he roars, "I steal a few coins and hurt no one ... you kill
hundreds and steal whole countries! Who is the greater thief?" Though the
brother-adviser moves to draw his sword, the warlord, undisturbed, admits
the accusation is true, and goes on to say that having banished his father
and killed his son, he will do anything to rule. After this scene the
credits begin to roll, and one realizes that a sort of magic has already
Many scenes in the film examine the impact of European muskets on traditional Japanese warfare, marking that moment when technology eclipses heroism in importance. Shingen himself is killed by a sniper, and the film ends with the annihilation of an entire army by a coldly calculated barrage of musket-fire. The tone of the battle scenes, however, is reportorial, and there is no overt attempt to spark a reaction of revulsion towards violence. Kurosawa's simple style presents the mechanics of war without flinching or gawking, and saves the film from becoming stuck in easily evoked emotional patterns but limited in scope.
The thief is the focus of the film. The film helps us to see what happens to a little man who is asked to appear powerful, to seem like the very son of heaven, and who is yet granted no real power to command or initiate. His job is to deceive, and leave the ruling to the retainers. He has to deceive his grandson, a beautiful five year-old with black hair in a blue kimono who runs to his "grandfather," and after examining him briefly turns to the court and says brightly, "This is not my grandfather!" He has to fool the concubines and the horses. (The Master is ill and cannot ride.) He is surrounded by guards, at least one is always by his side, and it is his luxury to be himself whenever he is alone with one of them. In a superb cinematic moment, the thief, who has just met his guard-advisers, tries on an imposing look. The guards warn him not to get cocky, and relax into easy postures. Then, by some strange alchemy, the thief takes on the imposing, introspective look that earned Shingen his nickname, "The Mountain." The guards stiffen; unable to prevent themselves, they return to postures of perfect attention.
The imposter lives on a razor-edge. Whenever he must face those who were familiar with the lord, the retainers try to set up the situation to avoid every difficulty. But facing the concubines his composure disintegrates entirely. He cannot maintain the facade, and attempts to declare himself an impostor, but the two beauties think this is very funny. The more he protests the more they laugh, till at last he gives in and it all becomes a fine joke. One comes to realize that every day is filled with this sort of painful interaction, as the Shadow Warrior attempts to conceal his insubstantiality, or to add to the seeming substance. Only with the grandson, Takemaru, does he acquire a real personality. The two play together daily, and their love for each other is obvious. When at last the deception is ended, it is these two who suffer, and the thief will suffer more for the loss of Takemaru, it seems, than for anything else. One cannot but wonder if the warlord himself could have even approximated the sort of fondness which the thief possesses for this child.
The painful tension within the thief culminates in a dream sequence of surreal intensity, done not with camera tricks but rather, as the Japanese seem to prefer, with an unearthly stage setting. Dressed in fierce battle-armor, his face gleaming with burial oil, the warlord shatters his burial-urn from within, and emerges in awful glory. The thief, terrified, runs from him, staggering across dreamlike sand dunes of different colors. Then, suddenly, the warlord is gone. Searching for him now, the thief stumbles into a shallow pool, and the sound of his feet splashing reverberate like the roar of mighty waves. This scene symbolically crystallizes the relationship between the warlord and his shadow.
The climax of this paradoxical situation comes in battle. Shingen's son, who is too ambitious and jealous of his father's fame, is not reconciled to following this strategy of deception. He fears to live in his father's shadow, and living in the shadow of a shadow is intolerable. He ventures forth with his army, but so recklessly that the main force of the Takedas must move to protect his rear. Led by the thief, surrounded by his adviser-guards, they enter the fight. The battle continues into the night, and the Shadow Warrior has nothing to do but sit, impassive as the Mountain himself, while young boys shield his worthless plebeian self with their own bodies. The deception is successful, and the attackers, cowed at last by the Shadow Warrior's immovable presence, retreat. The thief cannot help but be pleased, almost as if he had done something.
The film ends tragically because the shadow can never become the substance. The aggressive stupidity of Shingen's son undoes all the posthumous effort of his father, and the end of the Takeda clan is as swift as water going over a cliff. There seems to be an element of fate here, for the thief's efforts held back disaster, but only for a time. The shadow could only forestall the destruction which the lord himself would have averted entirely.
The thief, for his own part, becomes one of the warlord's true servants. His final sacrifice is touching to the point of being sublime. He dies in the waters of the lake where Shingen himself was buried, reaching for the Takeda banner, which floats in the water, just out of reach, as the current bears him by.